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The Englishman who went up a mountain But came down a mountain

Oh god, it’s so nice not being woken up by Buster the cat. I mean he’s great ‘n all...most of the time... but recently he’s been pawing at me or stabbing me with a claw at exactly the moments when it’s most annoying, which is most annoying.

It’s less nice to have to put up with an absolutely piss weak shower. Our room’s bathroom is weird: the water from the sink almost breaks the head off a toothbrush because it’s so strong, yet the shower has virtually no pressure whatsoever. Furthermore it requires an extraordinarily delicate touch to land the temperature in the slim sliver of an angle between scalding hot and freezing cold. Bah. So let’s call the morning a draw, and go out to get breakfast.

Oh. The breakfast place across the road isn’t open yet. We’ve wandered out just before 10am on a bank holiday Saturday and there’s not much doing except a few large groups of tourists. We’re both ravenously hungry so opt to head to the market for a breakfast raclette, to the soundtrack of bells. Lots and lots and lots of bells. Presumably related to the immaculate conception, Innsbruck is loud today, everywhere: the bells echo off the stone walls in the narrow streets and are inescapable.

Up at the market, none of the stalls are open yet. Oh. So we walk back and find seats inside Strudel Cafe, a cafe specialising in strudel. Who knew you could get savoury strudel?

Helen goes for a ham, cheese and mushroom strudel while I order “Strudel Tris”, which is a mystery plate of 3 different types. Mine are nice but none of them are as nice as the unsurprising choice.

Our appetites sated, we leave the town and walk down past the Landestheater, Congress, and the horse and cart rank to the Congress Hungerburgbahn station. At the desk I confidently ask for zweimal Innsbruck karte bitte but have no clue how to respond in German to the question I’m asked in response. Should’ve thought that through a bit better. Anyway, €100 lighter and we’re through the barrier for a ride on the imminently arriving funicular railway. Hooray!

Ooh, ain’t it modern?

It’s actually very modern. There are 4 stops on the line, with the stations all designed by a renowned architect and only opened in the last 10-15 years or so. The carriages are crowded, but not horribly so, which is good because we want to get out not at the last stop but the third. The journey isn’t wholly what you’d expect from a funicular: it starts off more like a ride on the DLR, going through a long tunnel and then staying pretty flat as it crosses the river Inn, then another tunnel before it emerges and finally goes up steeply.

At our stop, Alpenzoo, the tracks are very steep, and the station building is very high off the ground. Down the lift and around a few twisty turns on the roads and we arrive at the zoo.

First thing we do is go look for the nearby otters, but there’s no sign. We pop our head into the aquarium but aren’t that bothered by the fish. This place isn’t just a zoo in the alps, but specifically a zoo that showcases animals who are naturally alpine. Not bothering with a map or guide book or anything we just wander about, mostly looking at birds like that owl above. Look at him!

This... eagle? They show off their wings like Zorro with his cape, and we almost miss the cute and very, very daft looking child bird to the left. Look at him!

Another owl foils my ability to focus beyond the leaves. Bah.

Occasionally there are non-birds, such as goats. One of the young kids has a splint on a rear leg because he broke it. Aww!

Some of the ones with big horns are absolutely terrible at hide-and-seek.

Walking around this zoo is arduous on the feet and calves, because it’s a series of steep switchback paths. We are on the side of a mountain after all. This means the setting is pretty spectacular, to be honest.

We can make out the giant ski jump on the other side of Innsbruck, in fact.

Many of the enclosures have multiple viewing places at different heights to give maximum opportunity to see the animals wherever they may be, and a few of them also have two-stage doors so you’re actually inside with the animals. That’s particularly cool when we’re near the eagles, though I bugger off sharpish when a couple arrives and the woman starts clapping loudly and shouting to try and get the birds attention. It seems really unwise to be doing that!

As we get near the top I think there are statues of moose or something, but then they move. Check out those moose!

Actually they’re elk, not moose. Look at him!

The one with the impressive headgear resolutely refuses to stand anywhere that makes for a good photo. Well fine! Be like that!

Midway through our walk Helen goes to the loo. She takes a suspiciously long time, and comes out almost in tears of laughter. What the...? She promises to later show me a video which will reveal all. I am equal parts perturbed and intrigued.

Having seen all the birds and elk and goats that are out to play, we make the perilous trek back down to the bottom. It’s a much harsher walk on the ankles than the ascent. Throughout our time here we’ve heard bells continuing to echo out from Innsbruck below, but at the stroke of midday there’s also a loud air raid siren which sounds for 30 seconds or so. What? No-one else seems shocked or panicked by this so Helen just writes it off as Innsbruck’s “the raclette stalls are open!” call or something.

Midway we stop for another look in vain for the lynx, until Helen wonders why so many people have been staring at the huge tree and oh! There’s a lynx up the tree!

We’re there for a few minutes, with a crowd arriving and we pay forward the advice, gesturing to confused Italians that they should be staring up where we are, not down at the ground. There’s a lot of Italian spoken around here, not just in the zoo but the whole of Innsbruck. It actually seems like a fully tri-lingual city, as we’ve had zero problems with English either. I s’pose Italy isn’t far away tbh.

There are a handful of animals lower than where we came in so we go for a look around. First up, some extravagantly-foreheaded ducks.

Then, bears! Oh my! We see this one, sunbathing on his back, and looking really chilled and happy and cute.

Look at him!

Further round there’s another, by a little platform where you can buy food to throw in for them. Plenty of people are doing so, but the bear is just pacing up and down on the ledge next to the water. It doesn’t go in the water, catch any food, or do anything except pace back and forth. It’s really sad and not nice to see. We like zoos because we like seeing all these animals we wouldn’t otherwise see, but bleurgh, this is a bit sobering.

Down the very bottom I need a tactical piss. The gents only have a proper lav, no troughs or urinals, and I get to experience what made Helen laugh so much earlier. When you flush it, there’s a big mechanical noise and the middle section of the top bit elevates and comes forward, and then out of that comes a little nozzle – all a bit transformers. The nozzle starts squirting disinfectant gently, directly onto the rim of the seat, which rotates and looks hypnotic because it’s not circular. I mean, like, what?

Anyway, enough zoo-loo stories. Kinda wish I could get a decent quote from Zulu for the title of this entry but I failed.

Back to the funicular station, an up-bound train comes very soon but is too packed for us to fit on. Uh-oh. At least we can wait for the next one with great views.

When the second train comes along it’s almost equally packed, and no-one is getting off for the zoo. But we’re beckoned to squeeze in, by some English people who are in a good mood. “Breathe in!” I say and we manage to fit in for the short ride up to Hungerburg. And by up, I do mean up.

At the top of the Hungerburgbahn is Hungerburg. There’s a Christmas market here, so we’re told, and lo and behold there is: about 8 stalls right next to the station. Glühwein please! And, holy shit, would you look at that vista.

OBVIOUSLY this calls for a gratuitous cheesy glühwein Innsbruck mountain selfie.

There’s precious little else to do here to be honest, but we’re fine with that. It’s spectacular and I’m very glad we came. But... well... can we go any further?

I do mean “we”, not “I”. There’s a cable car ride a few steps away that goes much, much further up the mountain, see. Innsbruck is at 560m above sea level; Hungerburg is at 860m or so. The cable car goes to Seegrube, at 1905m. So, no, we’re not even half way up yet. I am definitely going to go up top, but Helen’s a bit wobblier than me with heights and is uncertain, but not ruling it out. Let’s go look at the ride and see what it’s like, and time it to see how long the terror might last.

It’s about eight minutes. The very good news is that there’s only one cable car, a big thing that holds a couple of hundred people or so, rather than a series of small, light 4/6-person things. So if worst comes to the worst, she can hide in the middle of the car surrounded by people and not looking outside. OK, let’s do this, but more booze required just to bump the bravery quotient up. There’s a nice bar behind the market called Hitt und Soehne and they sell us very refreshing beer, wine, and apple strudel.

While there we research altitude a bit. In one of our fantasy-holiday-booking sessions a little while ago we ruled out this mad looking cloud forest in Ecuador on the basis that Helen’s never been to altitude and doesn’t know how she’d cope, and I’ve got shitty asthma lungs. The Ecuadorean forest is at, like, 2800m, so way higher than we’re even going to go today. But then I think, hang on, how high was that volcano in Costa Rica? Turns out it was higher than the forest even, and we both coped completely fine there – even with a rarefied atmosphere full of sulphurous volcano fumes. Damn it, we should go to Ecuador!

But, more entertainingly, we learn that the volcano I just mentioned – Volcan Poas – erupted just 2 months after we visited, and was unsafe to visit for a full 16 months afterwards. Holy shit!

[At this point I want to name the entry “Altitude, you got some fuckin’ altitude”, for all you Misfits fan out there]

Right. Enough about the altitude of elsewhere. Back to the cable car. There’s a queue to get in because it’s strictly capacity controlled. Five or ten minutes later, with Helen having not backtracked from her decision, we’re through the gates and in the car early enough to be near the window. Helen is already demanding a medal for bravery, as well as documentary evidence that she’s going through with this. The latter we can do.

So, up to Seegrube we go. It’s AMAZING. Helen’s steadfastly looking in the direction of travel, since it doesn’t really give much of an impression of ascent as the tops of the trees stay at a fairly static distance from our vehicle. I am facing backwards and being increasingly gobsmacked by the views.

Eight breathtaking and ear-popping minutes later we’re at the “top”. Hi, Seegrube. Will someone please sell us some goddamn glühwein?

Actually first things first, let’s go check out the views and the snow and the holy shit we’re up a big fuck off spectacular mountain looking back across a valley at a ton of other big fuck off spectacular mountains.

Who needs bravery when you’re QUEEN OF THE WORLD!?

Tell you what though – bit nippy, innit? You’re all very welcome to ask me “aren’t you cold”, and my answer is “actually, yes”.

Part of the reason for the cold, as well as the whole December up a mountain in the alps thing, is that there’s some biting wind. Looking around to our right, some of the neighbouring mountains look like they’re actually getting snow right now.

Several large gusts of wind hit us in moderately quick succession, spraying tons of snow off the ground and up into our faces and across all the tables and stuff. A few glasses and mugs clatter to the ground. Y’know what, shall we have a drink inside? But alas, there’s no space, the restaurant is jam packed. So, sod it, we might as well just return to Hungerburg. There is nothing else to do around here except...maybe... go up a bit further? There are, after all, more cable cars up to Heflekar, where there’s another restaurant plus the start of one of the world’s most difficult ski runs.

No, fuck that. We’ll just go back down, thanks. In the cable car station, Helen’s card lets her through but mine doesn’t and I have to go ask one of the ticket staff to let me through. The ride down is just as spectacular as the ride up, and unaffected by any of those gusts of wind. Beneath us, as we did partially on the way up, we watch people walking the steep trails, several of whom look to be dressed really badly for such an activity.

At Hungerburg, bells are ringing. It’s still cold and we don’t stop for any bravery-rewarding booze, instead opting to get in the crowded funicular back down to the bottom.

It’s a horrible ride on the inside because there’s a child whose piercing screams are loud enough that I fear my eardrums may be perforated. Ouch.

Back in town and into the altstadt we’re on a mission for raclette. The whole place is absolutely rammed to the gills, way worse than on Friday. We manage to join a queue to buy some, only to be told once we reach the front that it’s the pick-up place only, the ordering takes place next door. Damn it! It’s really unpleasant around here anyway so we try a few side streets, unsuccessfully, eventually deciding to visit the Markthalle which is a large food hall by the river.

We get there are 3.45pm and most stalls are closing up; being a public holiday, today everything shuts at 4pm. Bugger. Oh well. Back out and through the nearby market, everything is still rammed and the Austrian respect for personal space is in full effect: one lady points something out to her companion, nearly picking Helen’s nose for her, and absolutely not moving her hand even though we’re trying to walk past and get OUT of her way.

Bells are still ringing out throughout the city as we change tack and hunt for somewhere to sit in and eat. Places seem either too expensive or too smoky until we hit upon the back room of a cafe/bar called Ostarichi: the front room is full of boisterous men drinking and singing, but the back is entirely empty, and it’s a no smoking venue. Hurrah!

So, we’ll have a couple of beers and a jagerschnitzel and some pfannengemüse please. You heard. It’s all very delicious and this is a great success. Again, the staff are effortlessly trilingual even though I manage to order correctly in German.

Back outside it’s glühwein o’clock, again. Behind us in the queue are some whiny Americans worrying about how the hot wine might taste and whether it might upset their stomach. We get some space standing next to a couple of Christmas trees and listen to the brass band on the balcony, as on the previous evening.

I take so long to drink mine that the wine ends up being a bit cold, which tips it firmly into “wine I don’t like” territory. Lesson seems to be that I must drink my booze quicker. Roger that.

Seeking a bit more peace and quiet, Helen demands I walk us “the quietest route possible” back to Tribaun for craft beer. We have to stop so she can pose next to a weird soldier statue puppet thing.

Apparently dingy unlit alleyways are not part of the allowed route, but soon enough we’re back at the bar and while it’s a bit busier than on Friday, it’s still pretty damn empty. A Scottish lass is serving behind the bar so I tell her I won’t embarrass myself with pidgin German; she’s surly like an Estonian and unmoved by my friendly chit chat. OK, just a couple of beers please. Up the way she’s giving stern advice about asking if a venue accepts card payment before placing an order, as most places are cash only. This is something we’ve kinda inferred actually, since whenever we’ve opted to pay by card it’s been greeted with a bit of “oh, OK, I’ll go get the machine” from any waiting staff. Cash rules everything around me.

On the table is one of the nastiest beer mats either of us have ever seen.

From Tribaun we walk back to the hotel via a brief argument about Helen’s propensity to respond with “yes” or “OK” to questions I pose which have two clear answers, neither of which are “yes” or “OK”. No shops are open en route so there’s no facility to buy a couple of beers for the room so, sod it, let’s see how bad The Galway Bay is shall we?

It’s not bad at all. Very Irish. Well decorated rather than spit and sawdust. The barman is exceedingly Irish, and the Irish beer I have from Ireland is very nice. We take the only empty table, reserved from 9pm but it’s only 7pm. The pub’s in two halves, one being the smoking room and the atmosphere in there is too much even for Helen let alone me.

Adjacent to us is a table of 4 muscled fellas in tight t-shirts, and their conversation seems to dry up while we’re there and they all move to talking on their phones .. to each other? .. and staring over at us. It’s kinda bizarre and uncomfortable, definitely not in-keeping with how they behaved when we first arrived – moving their coats out of our way and stuff. Huh.

With energy sapping despite the early hour - we covered a lot of ground today, vertically and horizontally, and in thin air, after all - we opt for a night cap in the hotel bar, which I turn into two beers, naturlich. Helen is unnervingly interested in the linguistic proximity of the bar’s name – “PFIFF” – and her description of all the crap coming off her new shawl onto her clothes – “floof”, and wastes a page of my pad writing about it.

Signing the beers back to the room, we ascend Schindler’s lift back up to the third floor and in the room I transfer all the pics across to the iPad. Maybe I’ll start writing the day up, or maybe I’ll just fall asleep immediately. Yeah, the latter.

Created By
Darren Foreman
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